Addicted to the Beach

A few months ago I realized something very profound about myself. It happened as I was swimming at a deserted paradise beach in the village of Diembering, in the Casamance region of Senegal. Jumping over big waves and body-surfing on top of the blue water, I was feeling overly happy – like a kid on a sugar high.

That’s when I realized that I have a problem – a beach problem. In fact, it’s a real addiction.

Since 1999, only one year has passed without me spending weeks or months in the vicinity of amazingly beautiful tropical beaches. That year was 2005, when the shore line of New York (which is actually not too shabby!) had to suffice.

But in 2006 I more than made up for the lost beach time by spending eight months in Australia, the country of pristine waters and white sands and mind-boggling snorkeling opportunities. My favorite memory from that year is swimming alongside a giant turtle at Lady Musgrave Island. 🙂

Since those sunny days Down Under I’ve also discovered playas in Latin America (Colombia! Cuba! Panama!), South and South East Asia, the Caribbean and most recently West Africa. In fact, looking at my travel routes over the years, my paths have almost always followed the coast lines of continents. Coincidence? I think not.

So yeah, I like beaches. A lot. But so do many other people. Why would that be a problem, you may ask…?

Well, not that it’s a problem per se, but my love of beach bumming has definitely had a profound impact on who I am, my career choices and the type of life I lead nowadays. Sometimes I have to wonder what kind of a person I’d be, had I never been enchanted by gently-swaying palm trees and the refreshing taste of fresh coconut water – to the point that being near them is almost an unhealthy obsession. You wouldn’t believe the arrangements and compromises I’ve made in order to stay near the ocean swells.

You see, it was the proximity to Pacific and Atlantic beaches that prompted me to pursue journalism studies in California and Florida, and even got me considering Hawaii for my master’s degree. Eventually New York won, but only barely.

Yes, my addiction is that bad! The thought of living inland has always felt suffocating. Even my occasional inland travels, such as the February yoga retreat in the Sahara, make me feel a bit uneasy. Generally a week is the max I can spend away from the coast without getting jittery.

So in early 2000s I studied for two years at Palomar College near the famous surfer city of San Diego, California. I then transferred schools and two years later got my bachelor’s degree from Flagler College in the tiny coastal town of St. Augustine, Florida. Since Flagler didn’t offer a degree in journalism, I had to settle for studying communication. But at least I was able to spend my days off rollerblading to the beautiful nearby beach! Now that would not have been possible at the Missouri School of Journalism, probably the most famous J-school in the US.

So basically I had to make the choice between a quality education and a quality beach – and I chose the latter. Was it the smartest thing to do career-wise? Maybe not, though the classes at Flagler were definitely good too and I learned a lot. Did I love my life in California and Florida to the fullest? You bet.

And I won’t lie – it was the images of eye-achingly white stretches of sand and unreal turquoise waters that got me thinking that the Maldives would be an amazing place to teach journalism in 2010 with the help of the Davis Projects for Peace grant. That, and the fact that the country had just gotten freedom of speech in 2008 and the residents were in dire need of media education. Lucky me, my proposal got selected for the grant as one of 11 out of 50 applications.

So for two months I taught workshops in this tropical island nation together with my super talented photographer-videographer friend Mariana Keller. The experience was truly unique: I loved being able to share my knowledge with the local journalists and to train them in our common craft. But yet somehow what I remember the best from those months is the amazing scenery that words cannot describe:

Ahhh. Pure bliss.

It may come as no surprise that it was this trip to the Maldives that solidified my decision to continue on the freelancing path. Sure, it may not be the best paid job out there or one that is for the faint of heart due to its irregularity. But then what other job would allow me adequate beach time whenever I felt a pressing need to hug a palm tree? If you hear of one, please let me know. Until then, you’ll likely find me typing away on some tropical beach.

So who else wants to confess to being a full-blown beachoholic?? (Yes! There’s even a song for us!) What kinds of sacrifices have you made in your life in order to keep your feet in the sand as often as possible?

You know you have been in Guinea-Bissau for too long when….

Guinea-Bissau, a tiny country on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa, is one of those places where days easily turn to weeks and before you know it, you have practically become a local.

15 signs you have been in Guinea-Bissau for too long:

1) You treat power cuts as a normal part of everyday life. When the all the lights in the house suddenly turn off sometime between 7-11 p.m., you’ll just casually flick the switch of the flashlight that is permanently glued to your hand, and go on with your business like nothing happened. You know perfectly well that the lights will come back in an hour or two, or by the next day for sure. And a power cut is really just a good excuse to go out for a caipirinha!

2) When someone asks you what goes into a caipirinha, you automatically say it’s made of the Guinea-Bissauan spirit of “cana” and is a local classic. (I have personally dubbed Guinea-Bissau as mini-Brazil!). Also, “Baileys” now refers to a mix of fuel-tasting cana, condensed milk and coffee, poured into a 1.5-liter water bottle and drank nicely luke-warm because nobody has a fridge.

3) You think it’s totally normal for freshly-roasted cashew nuts to be sold straight out of the vendor’s hand into yours. While a few thousand germs do switch owners in the process, not much money does: 200 CFA ($0.50) gives you about two palm-fulls of yummy, if slightly sandy, cashews.

(You can also buy fresh cashew fruit and make juice out of it! The nut part comes from the roasted the stub of the fruit.)

4) When someone offers you wine with lunch, you know better than to ask “is it red or white?” Cashew wine only comes in one color: gray. At least the taste varies from fresh and sugary to overly-fermented sourness.

5) In one sentence you’ll use words from Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and Creole. You also feel bad about not speaking fluent Portuguese creole, a language you didn’t even know existed before setting foot into Guinea-Bissau.

6) When the phrase “hit song” automatically refers to the catchy slow tunes of local pop star Americo Gomes:

7) You come to realize the bars you frequent are all located within a two-block radius of each other, meaning that Bissau is not at all the metropolis it seemed to be during the first day.

8) You drink your water out of small plastic bags that you buy in the corner shop. You also know the perfect technique: bite a small hole in the corner and squeeze hard.

9) You think it is totally normal for the airport bar to be a little shack by the road, crowded by people with suitcases, and for the check-in time to be whenever you see the plane arriving on the runway.

10) All the expats you speak with have had malaria or are currently fighting the latest bout of it. Most people seem to think it’s just an extreme case of the feverish flu and don’t even bother with mosquito nets.

11) You no longer wonder how it’s possible that you are in one of the world’s poorest countries, and yet bridges and roads are in great shape, people wear nice clothes and there are fancy mansions sprouting up all over. That’s just how it is. (Surely it has nothing to do with the Latin American drug lords using Guinea-Bissau as a transfer point, right?)

12)  You know better than to buy the 5th ticket to a “Sept Place”, one of the converted Peugeot station wagons that serve as Guinea-Bissau’s only mode of public transportation. While these rickety cars do somehow seat seven people, the fifth person ends up sitting on top of the back wheel, crouching uncomfortably the whole way.

13) You have abandoned all your long sleeves and ankle-length skirts – way too conservative for Guinea-Bissau! Here the look is more along the lines of tank tops and miniskirts, especially in the buzzing nightlife scene of the capital city Bissau.

14) You have learned to take a nap before going out dancing at the local hotspots like Bambu or Sabura, as it will surely be another long night. You know that Bissau is called a “24-hour party place” for a good reason – the fun never ends (before 6 a.m. anyway).

15) You have lived through a coup d’etat or two – Guinea-Bissau is famous for not having a single president complete a full term since 1994.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: After spending nearly a month in Guinea-Bissau, I finally left a week before the latest coup – clearly too early! I’ll take that as a sign that I need to go back some day. 🙂

A different kind of a roadtrip

When you say the word roadtrip, most people start visualizing images of never-ending North American highways, identical Burger Kings, and soulless roadside motels.

But the kind of roadtrip I have taken over the past few months through West Africa has been a world apart from its Yankee cousin.

It’s taken me through four countries, one occupied territory, a no-man’s land full of landmines, past countless herds of camels and cows and sheeps, through 30 hours of pure Saharan desert scenery, past more than 20 police checkpoints, into lush tropical greenery and a world of white sand beaches.

I started my trip in Morocco back in January and have over the past three months made my way through Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau on a quiet, leisurely pace.

My modes of transport have consisted of shared Mercedes Benz bush taxis, colorful ramshackle minibuses, converted Chevy “Sept-Place” cars on the verge of a breakdown, a horse-drawn cart, a pirogue (a shaky little fisherman’s boat), big ferries, comfy buses, motorbikes and my own two feet.

At times I’ve been feeling totally out of place, surrounded only by men wearing a boubou, the Mauritanian version of a Moroccan jilaba

Other times I’ve felt right at home.


It’s been quite the adventure, and I’m sorry I haven’t  kept you updated all that well. Every day here in West Africa seems to be so full of adventure that each would warrant its own blog post, but that’s exactly why it’s hard to find the time to sit by the computer on a regular basis. Not a week goes by that I don’t feel a little guilty for not writing more, especially as my head is full of topics I’d love to discuss with you.

One of them is how Africa surely has the best children in the world. Never in my travels of 50+ countries have I encountered such happy, smiling, positive kids, without fail. I haven’t met a single teenager with attitude problems in West Africa nor a toddler throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the street.

Instead, I’ve met lovely boys like Makhtar, who smiled so radiantly on the beach in St. Louis, Senegal, that I just had to go say hello. I was so happy to learn his name, as it’s also the name of my favorite little boy in Mauritania.

And I’ve met beautiful girls like Jatou, who was my neighbor in Guinea-Bissau’s capital of Bissau for four days.

And I met tens of smiling kids in the rural village of Bouyouye in Casamance, Senegal.

How can you not feel overwhelming happiness when you look at these joyous faces? These guys and gals were my neighbors for a week in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott.

So again, I’m sorry for not including you in my everyday African life a little better. You certainly would have deserved it. But actually rather than a day-by-day count of my travels, I see this blog as being a place where I can share some particular snippets from the road and some observations I’ve made along the way. At least I say that to make myself feel better about it. 😛

If you have any particular questions about the logistics of traveling long-term, please don’t hesitate to ask. Just because it’s not in the blog, it doesn’t mean it’s a topic I am avoiding as I’d definitely love to help out with any info I may have. It’s just difficult to cover it all – especially while trying to also live in the moment, getting to know new cultures, learning new languages, and working as a professional  journalist all along.

Despite my lack of details, I hope this blog will still inspire some of you to take more unconventional roadtrips in the future. During my trans-Saharan trip I barely ran into any other travelers though there are certainly plenty of wonders to be discovered in this part of the world (and on six other continents!).

So please don’t be afraid to venture beyond those well-known vacation destinations, or to look for paths less beaten in those popular countries. At least for me this is the most rewarding way  to travel,  though it’s certainly not always easy or relaxing. In fact, after three months in West Africa, I’m ready for a vacation!

The Art of Traveling Light

A few weeks ago I wrote about the five unexpected benefits of traveling light, and in the end promised that I’d share my own packing tips with you soon.

My apologies that it took a while for me to get back to you on that, but here I am, ready to address all your questions and packing concerns with:

 Mirva’s Ultimate Guide to Traveling the World with a Carry-On

Before you get started, here’s my disclaimer: this information may not be suitable for mountaineers, hikers, skiers, winter enthusiasts, campers or globetrotting opera singers.  This advice is geared for typical travelers who are heading to those predominantly warm destinations – Australia, Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean  – and who plan on mostly sleeping in hotels, hostels or private homes, not outdoors. Also, some of this advice may not apply as well to guys as it does to girls. Sorry about that.

Still, this post will include information that may also benefit those above-mentioned groups and several others. Just remember that anything you read here should not be taken at face value – what works for me may not work for you – and is best used as a guide that can be modified to suit your needs.

Everyone has their own “must-have-items” while traveling, so please do not get offended if I have left out the one item without which you absolutely cannot live. For each his own! That said, here is my advice that comes from 10+ years on the road.

The Three Things You Think You’ll Need, but You Really Do Not

1)      Jeans

This may come as a shock for you blue jeans lovin’ folks out there but these heavy, cumbersome and hard-to-dry pants are the first absolute no on my packing list. You know how much space those take out of your little bag? And you know how much they weigh? A lot. Let’s face it, you plan to chill on the beach for the majority of your vacation anyway and jeans do not belong in that scene at all.

I realize you may want to bring a pair with you ‘just in case’, but I am telling you – it’s not worth it. Instead bring a few of the following: light-weight khakis, a thin pair of black pants, capris, shorts, sweatpants, skirts, dresses, leggings or even jeggings –basically anything is better than a pair of jeans. And if you are one of those countless people who just cannot imagine life without jeans, then fine, bring one pair. But make sure that it is of the lightest fabric you can find and be prepared to wear it whenever you are on the move: changing cities, flying somewhere or sitting in a bus for 30 hours. At least that way the jeans won’t take up precious space in your bag. Just don’t come complaining to me that you’d rather be wearing shorts or a nice dress in this heat! In all my travels around Asia, Australia, Latin America and now Africa I have never once wished I had brought jeans with me. Instead, long skirts are my staple travel wear (perfect also for countries where you shouldn’t show much skin). Whenever I get cold, I just wear leggings underneath.

2)      Sleeping Bag

I used to travel with a sleeping bag at all times though I wasn’t planning on doing any camping. I just brought it along in case the blankets in my hostels would not be warm enough or I’d take a night bus where the AC was on full blast. How many times did I actually roll the sleeping bag out of its case? A handful, at the very most, and even then I used it mostly just to get at least some use out of it.  Thus hauling a sleeping bag around for months just in case was hardly worth it. Nowadays I travel without one and have never regretted it. Every hotel gives you a blanket, and hostels too. When I have gone Couchsurfing, every host has offered me a duvet or a blanket or at least a sheet. And should you ever find yourself really needing a sleeping bag – well, just deal with it somehow. Wear layers, cuddle up with someone, tear down the curtains of the hotel room, use a scarf as a blanket… Be creative.

(The only time my sleeping bag came in handy in Australia in 2006 was during a visit to Byron Bay with my friend Kaisa, pictured here. The bus dropped us off at 4.30 a.m., and we didn’t want to splurge on a night’s accommodation when the night was almost over anyway.)

Nowadays I’d rather experience a chilly night once or twice during my trip than haul extra weight around for months. If you absolutely want to bring something to calm your nerves, get one of those slip-in silk sleeping bags that weigh nothing (and are meant for avoiding contact with dirty sheets) or “borrow” one of those handy, light airline blankets.

3)      Towel

While I started off traveling with a fluffy normal towel, over the years my towels just got smaller and smaller, until I finally was down to a tiny kitchen rag. You really do not need much more than that to pat yourself dry. Air-drying is so underrated! And if you love wrapping yourself in a big towel after taking a shower, don’t worry. Many guesthouses and hotels will supply you with one. Also, being deprived of a real towel for a while will help you appreciate the luxury when you come across it. For me that is part of the point of travel – learning to enjoy things you used to take for granted.

(Here I am, loving my most recent borrowed towel in Senegal’s Casamance region)

On the other hand, here are the…

Three absolute  must-haves for a traveler

1)      Sarong

If I could only take one item with me on my trip, a sarong would be it. If you are not familiar with the term, a sarong is a thin, colorful piece of fabric that is sold pretty much in every beach town worldwide.

If you do not already own one, make sure to buy one when you hit the road. You can rest assured, there is not a single item in this world that is more multi-functional than a sarong. I use mine as a towel for the shower and the beach (which is why I often do not even bring the little kitchen rag with me anymore), as a blanket in chilly buses and planes, as a sheet or a pillow case in one-star hotel rooms. I wrap it in my head like a turban or around me like a dress.

I even wore a flowery sarong to a Cambodian wedding once! I sometimes carry things inside my sarong, or hang it down from my hostel bunk bed to create an illusion of privacy. I use it as a curtain or as art on the wall. The sarong simply cannot be beat! I usually buy a pretty one from every trip and keep it as a multi-functional souvenir.

2)      Bolero

As with jeans, many people feel the need to bring a bunch of long sleeve shirts along just in case. But unless you are going to a Muslim country, a place with an abundance of malaria or some chilly high altitude towns, you will not get much use out of long sleeve shirts. But since you’ll still want to be prepared for chilly days or nights, the best solution is to bring a bolero or two. A bolero refers to those add-on sleeves that were trendy some five years ago, and are still super trendy in my books as the ultimate travel accessory (hence I’m wearing a bolero in the sarong photo above!). Just throw on a bolero and voila – your sleeveless top has turned into a long sleeve shirt! The best part is that you can wear the bolero with any of your tops, and it weighs much less than a full long sleeve shirt. So even if you never end up needing to wear it, it’s not a big loss weight-wise. The only thing is that boleros are a bit hard to come by these days. So if you see one sold, grab it right away! In fact, I just spotted some in a store in Dakhla, Western Sahara, if anyone is heading that way…


3)      Mini-size shampoos and other beauty products

You know those mini-size shampoos and conditioners that you get at hotels? That is what you should be traveling with too. There is absolutely no reason for you to haul around full-size lotions and potions that take up half of your luggage (yet many people still do!). I bring just a tiny shampoo bottle with me – well, everything I bring is tiny in fact! Here’s a half-liter water bottle as a size comparison.

This black miniature shampoo bottle in the middle lasts me a couple of months, easily.

“How?” you may ask. Well, for one, I have trained my hair so that it only needs to be washed once or twice a week. Other days I just take a shower without washing my hair, which is a great time and shampoo saver. Secondly, I’ll refill the little bottle from time to time from the big bottles that other travelers are hauling around – they are usually more than happy to get rid of a few extra ounces of weight. Or if need be, I’ll buy a bigger bottle to refill from and give the rest to another needy traveler or a local.

(Note: If you think that your hair cannot be trained not to get greasy every day, you are wrong. It definitely can – you just might not want to be seen in public during the training period as it takes a few weeks. Getting braids makes the process a whole lot easier. Your hair doesn’t need to be washed more than once a week after it is braided, and you can continue on that path even after you take the braids off.)

  (Braids are also a great ice-breaker when traveling. People cannot wait to touch your strange hair, at least when you have partly pink braids…)

 

What did you think about these tips? Were any new to you? I still have a few more up my sleeve, so stay tuned…

24 people, 6 days, 1 Sahara

What happens if you bring 24 strangers together and isolate them from the world for six days in the middle of the Sahara Desert? Unexpected things, I tell you.

And I am speaking from experience, as I was one of these 24 travelers to take part in The Road Junky Sahara Retreat this February. The retreat, which I randomly came across online in January, was the main reason I chose to start my African tour from Morocco.

In case you haven’t heard of Road Junky Travel, it’s a web magazine dedicated to travel stories and videos. This year was the second time that Tom Thumb, one of the website’s founders as well as a writer, storyteller and permanent nomad from England, organized this retreat in the desert. As last year’s camp was such as success, Tom decided to make this year’s stint a day longer, five nights and six days.

The Road Junky Sahara Retreat was advertised as a travelers’ meet-up, and a chance to meditate in the vast emptiness of the Sahara, and participate in workshops of yoga, aikido and dance. There would also be travel stories shared around the fire, and evenings spent listening to Tom reciting tales from the “1001 Nights” collection.

Those of you who know me probably remember that I am not into yoga, I definitely never meditate and I have never expressed even the slightest interest in aikido. A few years ago at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism I did participate in some martial arts classes held by Sensei George, but mostly just to show my support. I was never a natural-born Jackie Chan, nor into any remotely hippie-sounding spiritual stuff.

Add to this equation that I don’t like being far from the ocean, having grown up on an island four hours
off the coast of Western Finland. As an adopted New Yorker, I also don’t feel particularly comfortable
when I am far away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Three days is usually the max I can handle being in a remote location without getting anxious.

Yet somehow I felt drawn to this idea of spending a week amidst the sand dunes in the Sahara, so much so that I decided to shell out the 250 euro the retreat cost and sign up. I wanted to see how bright the stars would be, whether the yellow sand dunes were really as spectacular in real life as they looked in
photos, and whether I could actually learn to enjoy these activities I had no previous interest in.

As I mentioned in the beginning, unexpected things will happen if you bring 24 people to the Sahara Desert. An anti-American hippie will befriend a clean-cut Midwestern guy, a vegetarian will succumb to the smell of delicious chicken tajine and a reserved German will throw himself in the middle of a cuddle puddle of entangled human bodies. Unlikely friendships will form, long-overdue tears come running out at the sight of the most beautiful sunset and strangers will care for each other as if they were family.

A black-clothed heavy metal singer with a pony-tail Mohawk will turn into a hug monster, and a sandstorm will blow away a songwriter’s creative block. A hyper, cynical city girl will enjoy yoga, aikido and dance therapy lessons held in the middle of nowhere.

Yes, that was me stretching myself in unlikely positions at the crack of dawn, welcoming pretend-attackers into my invisible circle, searching for my sphere of energy and sensing that of others. Without thinking about how silly I looked, I allowed myself to imagine I was as light as a feather dancing in the wind and as heavy as a stone laying in the sand. I learned to lean on other people both physically and mentally, which is at times hard for those of us who are fiercely independent souls.

No matter how “hippie” some of the exercises seemed for my taste, I decided to face this retreat with an open mind and see if it would lead to something new, whatever that might be. After all, “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” And I did enjoy doing things differently for a change, and interacting with the types of people I normally do not encounter.

And though I was even contemplating trying to meditate to the sound of people humming “ommmmmmm” around me, I didn’t quite get to the right mindset for that. The retreat was so action-packed that I just didn’t have time!

In case you are interested in joining next year, here’s what our daily schedule looked like:

-8 a.m. wake-up call: “Yoga in 10 minutes!”

-Crawling out of our tents into the fresh but chilly desert air

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated yoga spot

-Yoga for 45 mins to an hour: stretches, breathing exercises

-Breakfast: bread, yellow and red jam, olives, olive oil, endless cups of Moroccan tea

-Another call: “Aikido in 10 minutes!”

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated aikido spot

-Aikido for 45 mins to an hour: exercises with a partner, pushing, gentle shoving, how to avoid an attack by moving along with the attacker’s movements instead of fighting them.

-About an hour of free time

-Lunch: Bread with Moroccan soup consisting of orange broth with bits of tomato and quinoa. Orange slices for desert, as well as dates, wafers and nuts before and after lunch. More tea.

-Chilling and playing music in the sun for an hour, enjoying the heat that would be gone after sunset

-Another call: “Dance class in 10 minutes!”

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated dance class spot

-Dance class for an hour: touching one person in the group when the music ends, pretending to be a
tree or a traveler in a forest, trying to find your energy center and developing your own dance

-Time for sunset: climbing up one of the highest dunes to see the view. This is harder than you’d think.

-Trying to find your way back to the camp in the moonlight, getting lost for a bit and panicking ever so slightly

-Dinner time: chicken tajine, veggie tajine eaten out of communal bowls. Bread, tea and orange slices for desert.

-Climbing over the dunes to the designated fire spot

-Guitar music and singing around the fire, chatting, Tom telling 1001 Nights’ stories under the full moon. Most of them seemed to include a girl who was “as beautiful as…the moon, shining in the night sky.”

I was officially dubbed the most unromantic person on the retreat after jokingly questioning this funny metaphor. “How can you compare a woman to the moon? The moon is just a white blob! A rose maybe, but the moon?” 🙂

Overall the retreat was great fun and definitely helped me empty my mind of daily worries for a bit. Some of the things others mentioned enjoying were the friendships, sunsets, losing track of time in the desert, workshops, feeling the connection to the earth, sensing love and peace, seeing the moon rise out of the horizon and finding new energy for the future. All very hippie-sounding, but I guess that’s not such a bad thing after all.

If you think this retreat could be for you, keep checking the Road Junky website for details. The next one should be announced in the fall, and will be held around February/March 2012.

Five Surprising Reasons to Pack Light

One of the most common travel questions I get is how to pack sensibly for a trip that lasts several months. My advice is always the same: pack as little as possible. Your body will thank you, and your mind will be at ease as you’ll have fewer material things to worry about.

Don’t let this old photo fool you. I’m currently roaming around the African continent with a tiny backpack that weighs about 9 kg, which is about 20 pounds, or 1.5 stone to those of you following the odd British measurement system. 😛

I plan to be on the road with this bag anywhere from three to six months. And even now I feel like I don’t need a third of the things I brought with me! Goes to show that there’s no such thing as packing too little. You’ll always make do with what you have, and most things that you need you can also get on the road. After all, your home country is not the only place where people use clothes to cover themselves and shampoo to wash their hair.

Not that I was always such a travel minimalist – far from it! I have just learned from experience. Back in 2006 when I headed to Australia armed with the one-year Working Holiday visa, I even packed rollerblades with me! Can you believe that?? Nowadays my entire bag’s contents weigh less than those bulky exercise shoes did. Yes, I still love rollerblading (and nowadays also kangooing), but I have also understood that you can’t have it all. As I wrote earlier, this lifestyle is all about making sacrifices.

And while I haven’t seen anyone else hauling rollerblades around, not a day goes by when I don’t see little backpacker girls carrying rucksacks twice their size, or guys trying to look macho while sweating profusely under their ginormous pile of stuff.

So what’s the big deal about packing light, you may be asking. Well, for one thing: people are not ants. We are not built to carry eight times our own bodyweight. But really, the answer lies in these pictures. Here I am on my Asian tour in 2007, carrying the world in my bag:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here I am today, on the streets of Rabat, Morocco:

(Yes, I realize I look ridiculous in my long Moroccan jilaba robe, but it gets chilly here so I had to get one!)

Picture yourself having to carry one of these bags around every day for, say, five months. Which one would you rather choose? Yep, I would definitely take the latter one too. And I’m so annoyed that I didn’t come to my senses earlier! It was only during my one-month trip to Mexico in the end of 2008 that I first thought about bringing just a small day pack with me. (I figured if I could survive a week with it, I could do a month too.) And WHOA, what a difference that made! Not only was it much easier for me to move around physically, I also noticed the five major benefits there are to packing light:

1) Saving Money

You know those outrageous fees that airlines charge for checked-in baggage? Well, they don’t bother me, as my mini-bag counts as a carry-on. I have even managed to avoid baggage fees on Spirit Airlines, which is notorious for charging $20 even for a carry-on bag unless it is small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. And mine is! Also, buses in many developing countries charge about 50 cents to a dollar for each bag that is placed in the luggage compartment. I avoid that charge too, which may sound miniature but can mean savings of $50-100 over the course of a long trip.

2) Peace of Mind

Back in the day when I traveled with a huge rucksack, I constantly had to worry about it. Will my checked-in belongings make it onto the same flight as me? (Most of the time, no.) Will the bag still be in the luggage compartment of the bus by the time I get off? Has something been stolen from inside of it? Might someone slash the big bag open without me even noticing it? Those are not fun things to worry about, so I’m happy that I no longer have to spend time doing so. My little bag goes with me wherever I go, and is always at my sight. No more lost luggage worries whatsoever.

3) Increased Feeling of Security

Maybe this is not warranted at all, but I feel like I’m less of a target for potential robbers when I just carry a small bag (or at least I can run away faster!). If you arrive in a new town in a foreign country carrying a big rucksack, everyone can see that you are a newbie tourist. With a small bag, however, you can fool people into thinking that you have been around for at least a few days. For all they know you could be an expat walking around town with the day’s shopping in you bag, or a traveler going hiking, who has left most of his or her valuables in the hotel. Either way, big bag = much to steal, small bag = less to steal. The fact that I’ve never been robbed while traveling should speak for itself (knock on wood)!

4) More Room for Spontaneity

This one was the biggest surprise for me personally when I first started traveling light. I suddenly felt so FREE. Up until that point I hadn’t even realized how much my big backpack had controlled my life. Hauling the 20kg on my back like a mule had meant that my #1 priority in a new city was always finding a place to store my bag, which often meant having to book the night’s accommodation right off the bat. If it later turned out I didn’t like the town or the guesthouse after all, I just had to deal with it and stay there anyway since I had already paid. But now, with my tiny bag in tow, I can arrive in a new city, wander around for a couple of hours, and then hop on a bus to continue elsewhere if I feel like it. Perfect! This also helps with…

5) Saving Time

A prime example of how traveling light can save you time is my experience in Mexico: I arrived in Palenque in the morning, visited the Mayan ruins and a waterfall during the day, and then continued on a night bus to San Cristobal de Las Casas. I did all this while carrying my little bag with me. Thus I was able to see more in my one month in Mexico than the old heavy-traveling me would have in two months. And those hours that I used to spend huffing and puffing on the street desperately looking for a guesthouse to toss my bag in were now saved up and carefully spent on a beach instead. Not a bad trade off, huh!

Another time saver is being able to walk off an airplane and straight onto the taxi line without needing to stop by the luggage carousel to wait for your bag to arrive 30 minutes later (or worse than that, never). More often than not, this also means being first in the taxi line out of the people on your flight! Yay for traveling light!

So who is with me on this? What’s the silliest thing you have ever traveled with? I bet nobody else thought of traveling with rollerblades… More importantly, was I successful in inspiring you to travel light next time you go hit the road? If so, stay tuned.

Coming up: tips for how to pack light! Got any tips of your own to share?